By Suganthi Singarayar ‘Riverbank’ Frank Doolan, spoke at the Gawad Kalinga  Global Summit held at the University of Sydney in October last year. He spoke of his work as an Aboriginal man who has made it his life’s task to reconcile black and white people in Australia. Frank is one of the founders of the Dubbo Men’s Shed, which models practical reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.

This year the Dubbo Men’s Shed published “A Shed Load of Stories” based around conversations that freelance journalist, Kathy Stone , had with 12 of the men who are involved with the shed.

The importance of the shed in the men’s lives comes through loud and clear in the stories that they tell. Many of them point out that they would not be alive except for the fact that the shed exists.

The stories cover a gamut of emotions and the lives portrayed in the book show us a microcosm of what it would have been like to live in Australia over the years. The stories include that of Phil Walker who was born in Jersey in 1935 and spent three years from the age of six in a prisoner of war camp in Germany. Frank’s story is in there as is Bert Barwick’s. Bert worked as an ambulance officer and after he retired he was asked to fill in as people went on maternity leave. He did that for the next six years till he retired again!  When he was diagnosed with cancer of the bone, he started to build a scale model of the Australian hero wagon - a flat-topped wagon used for hauling wool in the early 20th Century. Bert wandered down to the Men’s Shed because he needed to learn how to solder and someone mentioned that one of the men down there might be able to help him. Well, he has become a stalwart of the shed but he has still not learned how to solder!

At the book launch in February, Bert told the story of the four Iranian men who have become members of the shed and have learnt to speak ‘Australian’ there.  Bert explained that the men knew English, but not idiomatically. One day, someone mentioned that a person had been pinched by the police. The men asked, the police ‘pinched’ this person? It was explained that the police had arrested this person and the Iranian men took copious notes as the other men explained the different meanings of the word ‘pinched’.

The shed also provides a space for indigenous and non-indigenous men to come together and see each other as human.  According to Gary Tosh (a friend of Frank’s and a leader at the Men’s Shed )ten percent of Dubbo’s population is indigenous and Dubbo has a long history of racial conflict. When asked whether the shed has worked in terms of reconciliation, Mr Tosh pointed out that a lot of the white men who attended the shed may not have had a lot to do with Aboriginal people, or may have been “very racist”, but when they came to the Shed, they developed a “tremendous respect for the Aboriginal guys”. He said that respect developed over time as they developed relationships with each other. He said that was the only way reconciliation was going to work. “So, here you have old farmers really respecting Aboriginal men and the Aboriginal men - take Frank for instance - is just passionately supportive of these guys and how ironic is that - an Aboriginal man really laying down his life in many ways for the betterment of all these white guys and you know what a statement that is. Someone’s got to be big enough to build a bridge, we have seen him doing that and people like myself we have really encouraged that as well”.

The idea of the Dubbo Men’s Shed came about as the result of an indigenous men’s health conference that Frank attended and the idea of Aboriginal Men’s Sheds was mentioned.

Mr Tosh said that Frank was opposed to the idea of an ‘Aboriginal’ Men’s Shed; he wanted a shed that would be available and open to anyone.

Frank, Gary and a couple of other men who became the leaders of the Dubbo Men’s Shed, used to be the leaders of a soup kitchen in Dubbo. Frank shared his vision of an inclusive men’s shed and over time they came up with the idea of a Men’s Shed for all men in Dubbo. They obtained a run-down building, originally a stable, between the swimming pool and the skate park – a location that has turned out to be fortuitous, and slowly went about cleaning and fixing it up. The location is fortuitous because when children using the skate park happen to break their bikes or scooters they know that if they turn up at the Men’s Shed someone there might be able to fix it. The location provides the opportunity for interaction between the young and the old. There are of course rules that the men have to adhere to about not being alone with children at the Men’s shed.

The Australian Men’s Shed Association (AMSA) started in 2007 as a means of enabling men to have a place where they could get together and talk. They were seen as important for men’s health, to help men deal with social isolation as a result of retirement or unemployment and as a place where men could meet and talk without judgement.

Men’s sheds have an important place in Australian culture. Men will often disappear into their shed to potter away, fixing or making things or just taking time out to have a space for themselves. The concept of a Men’s Shed as a space for men to meet, chat, have a coffee, play cards or make things for the community, from mynah bird traps to chairs for disabled children has evolved from this tradition.  The Men’s Shed motto is “Men don’t talk face to face, they talk shoulder to shoulder”.

In 2010 the Federal Government’s Men’s health policy acknowledged that men’s health was dependent on many things including: physical, mental, social and spiritual well-being.

The policy went on to acknowledge that for Aboriginal men, physical well-being also took into account the well-being of the whole community “Aboriginal health means not just the physical well‑being of an individual but refers to the social, emotional and cultural well‑being of the whole Community in which each individual is able to achieve their full potential as a human being thereby bringing about the total well‑being of their Community. It is a whole of life view and includes the cyclical concept of life‑death‑life”.

The policy went on to say that this definition of health is helpful for all males not just Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men. The government’s policy acknowledged that the differences between men and women in terms of health and its outcomes did not mean competition between men and women for resources but rather that different health responses are needed to cater for the differences between men and women.

In that same policy document the government acknowledged the role of Men’s Sheds in helping men to deal with isolation and  funded the Men’s Shed movement to the tune of $3million over 4 years.

There are now 650 sheds throughout Australia. The Men’s Shed movement has also been taken up by health authorities in Ireland England and New Zealand, with the United States and Japan also very interested.  An international federation is being set up by AMSA.

Gary Tosh, said: “We just reckon that what is happening here is quite unique. It may not be, there might be other places doing this but we are really thrilled to be modelling something here that we hope happens all across the nation and there’s no reason why men’s sheds all across the nation can’t be a place that intentionally build bridges that reach out across the cultural divide and rub shoulders with people that are different. Frank and I are like chalk and cheese but we are committed to this and that’s what makes a difference”.

If you would like to obtain a copy of ‘A Shed Load of Stories’please go to: http://men.dubbo-nsw.info/

Photos from the Dubbo Men’s Shed http://men.dubbo-nsw.info/Pictures/index.html

The Australian government’s National Male Health Policy 2010 http://www.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/Content/4F49BF09C90C846ECA2578EF00029963/$File/MainDocument.pdf

National Male Health Policy 2010 – supporting document – National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Male Health Framework – Revised Guiding Principles

http://www.health.gov.au/internet/main/publishing.nsf/Content/4F49BF09C90C846ECA2578EF00029963/$File/NationalAboriginal.pdf